Row over mine roof bolts after three die: 'Forum' on safety in wake of Bilsthorpe tragedy

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A NATIONAL forum for debate on safety in the coal-mining industry will be launched in the wake of the disaster at Bilsthorpe colliery in Nottinghamshire, in which three miners died.

The accident at the mine, where the roof caved in, has sparked a furious row over safety in the industry and whether it is being prejudiced because of the Government's determination to sell off British Coal. Attention focused on the 'roof-bolting' technique used inside the mine, which has replaced the traditional system using steel arches.

The Health and Safety Commission announced a 'forum' to debate safety in the run-up to the planned privatisation of British Coal. A separate Bilsthorpe investigation by the Health and Safety Executive will be led by the Deputy Chief Inspector of Mines, Brian Langdon, and the findings published, the HSE said.

Yesterday the bodies of Bill McCulloch, 26, and Peter Alcock, 50, were found. On Wednesday, David Shelton, 31, the colliery under-manager, was found dead under the fall of rubble.

The three survivors spoke of the moment they heard the roof 'crashing in, all caving in and all the noise'.

Paul Smith, 22, the first to be found, said he would never go down the pit again. Russ Turner, 36, and Orest Kocij, 43, kept up each other's spirits by cracking jokes and chatting about holidays as they waited more than 12 hours to be rescued.

The HSE inquiry will concentrate on the roof bolts. Roof-bolting involves inserting steel rods to bind together the rock strata in the roof of the tunnel that allows access to the coal seam. It is said to be cheaper and more flexible to install than arch supports. It has been adopted in other parts of the world for many years but only since 1988 has it been in widespread use in the UK.

Martin O'Neill, Labour's energy spokesman, said: 'The Government's advisers have consistently encouraged the wider use of American mining methods such as roof-bolting in order to increase productivity.

'However, their safety in British mines is highly questionable given our different geological conditions. The Government must now take urgent action to ensure that safety is not compromised in the dash to privatisation.'

Mr O'Neill said that safety and the profitability needed to attract investors to privatise the industry are totally incompatible and that the Bilsthorpe accident serves to highlight that.

Alan Oakes, a leading consultant on mining engineering, said that roof-bolting has done much to increase the efficiency of deep mines but that it may not be suitable in every instance.

He added: 'If you cannot support a mine with roof-bolting it is unlikely that the mine will compete with mines which are roof-bolted. We have to investigate this incident to see what precisely happened but I would tremble to think that British Coal would abandon the technique.'

Arthur Scargill, the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, called for roof bolts to be banned. He compared them to 'dinner plates' being used to hold the roof up and instead advocated use of ring girders.

'Anybody who has supported the use of roof bolts as a primary or sole means of support is wrong and will continue to be wrong. I have been saying that for over 30 years, having had the personal experience of working with roof bolts over 30 years ago and seeing at that time a cave-in of similar proportions to that which we have seen at Bilsthorpe.'

Mr Scargill said the bolts were up to 70 per cent cheaper than traditional steel ring girder supports. 'The dash to cut corners in terms of safety in the mining industry is tied up with the drive towards privatisation.'

Both Mr Oakes and Dr John Harrison, of the Royal School of Mines at Imperial College, attacked the union leader for blaming the new technique, saying technology has advanced enormously in recent years.

Dr Harrison said: 'Roof-bolting is tried and tested and well suited to British geology. It is far superior to arches and to say that it is an American techology and will not work here is, I think, disingenuous.'

British Coal said it would launch its own inquiry. The Nottinghamshire area director, John Longden, said yesterday that it was too early to criticise roof-bolting. The roof fall had been so massive it was unlikely that any system of support would have held, he said.

Every miner's nightmare, page 3

Leading article, page 19